There is nothing to be joyful nor cheerful about. We hear and have always heard chants celebrating occasional breakthroughs counted for the feminist movement in a political context that is only known to be penetrable in rare occasions or by the drumroll of international pressure. Well, this joy chant can no longer be played like before.
The sayings that demands can be fragmented but rights cannot, and that feminist activists should follow the “give and take” approach, were very often repeated every now and then. Feminists celebrate what they take, then roll up their sleeves to continue their pursuit of taking what is for them, for women, for the society, and what is taken from women every day. They go on doing this with extreme patience. However, this is starting to look more like a Sisyphus myth, for once feminists reach a top, they roll down with the rock into the valley again. But this time they do not carry that same rock alone, but carry with it a second, third and fourth rock, without even being able to put a radical end to this existential dilemma.
So, what does this concretely mean?
In Lebanon, feminist activists have been demanding over the past six years the approval of a number of important amendments on law number 293/2014 “to protect women and family members from domestic violence”. But instead of reaping most of these amendments, feminist lawyers and activists ended up demanding them again, as crucial ones were not adopted by Parliament in its session on December 21st, 2020. Secondly, these activists started raising new demands of a more holistic law addressing violence against women in general, in order to address the limitations of special legistlations which usually struggle and suffocate within a broader rotten legal and political structure. And thirdly, they found themselves in the middle of a new battle to revoke the effects of some of the amendments introduced by the Parliament to the domestic violence bill which affected one of the most vulnerable groups of women in Lebanon. And this is how the Parliament succeeded in loading the women’s rights movement with many rocks instead of one.
Needless to say that this is one of the most common strategies deployed by authorities to de-energize activists. Its aim is to exhaust social movements and to even push many out of the game with frustration after frustration until they give up. At times, authorities may follow this strategy to delude society that change is actually still possible, especially in delicate and fate-defining political phases such as the one we are experiencing, and that being patient before reaching another milestone and trying harder are inevitable.
This time, while following their best legislative approach to always be fair to a group of people at the expense of another, Lebanese legislators chose to be the least fair to the most vulnerable and marginalized women in society, stating clearly that they only support the woman who in their eyes qualifies for the perfect victim who deserves protection. But even she is not protected enough by the new amendments they introduced.
Lebanese legislators chose to multiply the oppression of women exploited in the sex industry, prohibited by law, and reassert the equal treatment of both the exploited and their exploiters, in the benefit of sex buyers who are still, for the vast majority, male consumers exempted of any legal or moral responsibility.
In Lebanon, sex buyers enjoy a social and legal immunity that allowed them for centuries to use their presumed right and sense of entitlement to access the bodies of women -who are for the vast majority impoverished, orphans, abused, raped, refugees and victims of trafficking- whenever they pleased, however they pleased, by the power of their economic and male gender capital. Still, women remained the ones punished and deprived by incriminatory and disciplinary approaches of any alternative solutions or exit programs, protection mechanisms, negotiating power, means of complaint and access to justice.
Now more than ever, these women are deprived of their right to file a complaint or have recourse to justice. Now more than ever, they are left alone to face the challenges of their thorny and hazardous lives.
Instead of amending article 523 of the penal code in accordance with the law of 2011 on criminalizing human trafficking by decriminalizing women and holding traffickers and buyers to account, the Lebanese Parliament chose to increase the penalty on women who are put at work by their father, husband -or any other person- on the basis that the two parties should be treated equally as encapsulated by the clause ‘whoever participated in secret prostitution or facilitated it’. The legislators went so far in their pursuit for equality that they actually ratified an amendment to increase the penalty on both the facilitator and the exploited which in their view should be put on equal footing.
In fact, it is hard to tell if Lebanese MPs do not know a thing about gender equality, legal equality, and social justice. So, did their horrible mistakes come from their ignorance or precipitation or disregard about legal contradictions that they ended up consecrating those instead of addressing them by achieving legal textual harmony -for example between the penal code and the law on trafficking- and their disregard is what harmed women victims of sexual violence? Or was it that they intended to deepen the legal confusion with the aim to revive the old and bury the new, or best case scenario leave the door open for both the reformist and uptight conservative judge to interpret and act as they please? Perhaps they intended to embed the habit of incriminating and arresting women at police stations, for they even increased the penalty on them in order to perpetuate the chauvinistic mindset that will not have it any other way but to judge women, dividing them into “sluts” and “chaste”, into lucky victims and forgotten victims, into victims and criminals.
Ironically, women became domestic violence victims and prostitution criminals in the same law that was basically meant to help protect and bring them justice.
In the midst of this futile scene where legislators relate protecting the victims of domestic violence with increasing the penalty on those of them in prostitution in the same bill, the mind finds itself unable of establishing a final vision of what was going on in the heads of legislators who passed such amendments.
But then the mind stands confused in front of a strategic question that cannot be easily answered, especially before a legal crossroad like the one in the session of December 21st, 2020 which produced many legal changes relating to the lives of women in Lebanon.
The fundamental question remains: Are we allowed to celebrate amendments presented to us by a shabby system, and benefit from the improvements that will undoubtedly be beneficial to some women, while knowing that they doubled the injustice suffered by other women who have only known oppression and denigration their entire lives? Are we allowed to celebrate while our comrades are oppressed twice? Do we continue demanding what is for us and just keep fighting and enjoy the time we spend between one achievement and another, while knowing these are given to some but taken from others? Is this our fate, or better yet, are these our values?
What if we could seriously demand that this choir of legislators stop addressing some of the issues that matter to us at this stage, as nothing we deserve was or will ever be produced by such a Parliament? Isn’t this a safer option, especially for those who enjoy no privilege?
Wasn’t one rock enough for them in the first place?